Liz Flag Beer
Whether you’re a born and bred Chicagoan or a transplant who has embraced this great city as your home, one thing connects us all: our flag.

This iconic symbol of our city has been displayed in public and private spaces in its current form since 1939; a version of it was first approved in 1917. It’s seen in places you would imagine and in places you might think unimaginable. Journalist Elliott Ramos reported on the symbolic importance of the flag for WBEZ; author Robert Loerzel wrote a piece for Chicago Magazine about how our flag — and our undying love for it — compares (or doesn’t) to other cities.  
Nearly all Chicagoans feel attached to the flag and we all relate to it for our own reasons.  So that got me thinking. Can the symbolism and stories in the elements of the Chicago flag teach us about drinking history in Chicago? How does booze connect to those red stars, those blue and white stripes, and our city’s past? For the next five weeks, I will dig into the history and stories of the individual stars and the collective stripes and the link between our love for the flag and our love of drinking. 

Joining me in this venture is Phil Thompson of Cape Horn Illustration. Phil is a talented and skilled artist who has beautifully illustrated an infographic for each story. As part of the series, we will also host in-depth conversations with experts at the The Red Lion Pub and Hopleaf and cap it off with a Chicago flag inspired dinner by Chef Pat Sheerin at Trenchermen. Drinking, learning and Chicago? Always.


Before we were a city named Chicago, we were an area inhabited by a variety of Native American tribes living in Chekagou. They lived off the land and fur trading was the mainstay of their economy. After the Treaty of Granville of 1795 (an “agreement” in which Native Americans gave the United States an enormous amount of land), the newly established government acquired the area now located at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. 
This territory became even more important following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and that same year, the government ordered the construction of a fort due to the rapid expansion of the country. Named after Henry Dearborn, Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of War, Fort Dearborn was completed in 1808.
Capehorn Illustration CHI Flag STAR 1
American soldiers and their families lived in the fort during its construction. They had access to cattle and hogs which they slaughtered, butchered, grilled and smoked. They hunted for a variety of game, including venison, turkey and duck. They grew corn, beans, squash and wheat, as the Native Americans did. Life at the fort wasn’t easy; soldiers were isolated and paid poorly. Privates earned $7 per month, sergeants $10 and officers $20. 

As part of their salary, soldiers received rations of flour, salt, soap and whiskey. And boy, did they love their whiskey. The government set up a small store where soldiers could buy extra rations — except for whiskey. Alcohol was a controversial issue and a young man named John Kinzie took advantage of the business opportunity, opening an outpost near the fort.  Beginning in 1805, soldiers paid Kinzie their hard-earned cash to buy anything he sold, much of it whiskey. He started granting something known as a line of credit, and many of Fort Dearborn’s soldiers often found themselves in trouble, both with Kinzie and their government.

But perhaps the greatest problem was what whiskey did to Potawatomi/American relations.  Although the U.S. Government had outlawed the sale of alcohol to Native Americans, John Kinzie found a loophole. He set up trading posts along various rivers and found willing and able fur traders to sell whiskey to the Potawatomi; avoiding direct sale kept him out of trouble yet made him a hefty profit. 

Potawatomi leaders such as Tecumseh encouraged his people to avoid any and all “white” practices. They were instructed not to eat their foodstuffs or sell them native items. They were told to abstain from alcohol because it made them less connected to their culture.  Those who partook often drank themselves silly. Even more importantly, Native Americans purchased alcohol and made it part of their own trade. Soon, whiskey replaced furs and pelts as a financial mainstay. In tense political situations, American soldiers refused to sell liquor and ammunition to the Potawatomi, fearing that they would become drunk and take out their anger in an unwelcome manner. 

By 1812, the United States was engaged in a war between Great Britain and the Native Americans. Fatalities occurred, tensions ran high and situations were heated. On August 14, Captain Nathan Heald planned to evacuate Fort Dearborn and ordered the destruction of whiskey and ammunition, most of which had been sold by Kinzie. 
In her book, Rising Up From Indian Country, Ann Durkin Keating writes:
      “Destroying 1200 gallons of whiskey was not an easy task. They planned to dump both       gunpowder and whiskey into the Chicago River. The men broke open the heads of the whiskey       kegs and poured the contents into the river. While the work was done under cover of darkness,       it did not remain a secret for long. The Indians outside the fort heard the hammering and       wanted to know what was going on. Kinzie assured the Indians they were only “opening barrels       of pork and flour” in preparation to leave the fort the following day. A great quantity of whiskey       had been dumped into the river that by the next morning it was described as “strong             grog”...the destruction of alcohol and ammunition severely challenged the good relations       between the Potawatomis.” 

The next day, August 15, 1812 saw one of Chicago’s earliest and bloodiest encounters. This affair has been called the Fort Dearborn Massacre. The story is well-told, but often shared without full understanding of the realities of history.  Native Americans ultimately attacked because they had been repeatedly provoked. They were introduced to new products that soon impacted their environments, their economies and their whole lives. The stories of the past are, sadly, often one-sided. But we can agree on one thing: alcohol played an important role in Chicago’s past and certainly was a significant character in the story behind Star 1 of our beloved flag.

Please join us at the Red Lion Pub on Monday, February 9 at 7:00 p.m. for a free conversation about Stars 1 and 2 on the Chicago flag.  Author, historian, and Northwestern University professor Bill Savage hosts a conversation with Chicago History Museum curator Joy Bivins and Red Lion Pub owner Colin Cordwell.  Samples of CH Distillery Bourbon and various British beer will be provided and all three will be on special for purchase at the bar. For more information please visit History On Tap.